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Sandbox Symphony: Interview with Brother El

Brotha El spinning at the Smart Museum in front of Charles Gaines' Numbers and Trees, Central Park, Series I, Tree #9, 2016. Photo by Cecil McDonald.

As fellow South Side residents and former college classmates, I was happy to sit down with Brother El, or Lional Freeman, to talk about his growing annual event Sandbox Symphony IV on Chicago’s Oakwood Beach, held on Saturday, August 10. When we were both at Loyola University Chicago, we met and collaborated to create WLUW 88.7FM’s first and only hip hop radio show in the college station’s format—“The Hip Hop Project.” We often discuss the creative process in music and writing, but for this interview we wanted to talk about how this festival came about and the influence of his late mentor, the sculptor Milton Mizenburg. 

Mizenburg may be familiar if you’ve seen a few YouTube clips like this Chicago Tribune piece from 2013 or seen a couple of stories in The Chicago Reader. Others may know his work from Mizenburg’s outdoor gallery cameo in Sam Trump’s 2016 video for “Brother” with Add-2. His legacy is manifest in the Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art on Chicago’s South Side featuring epic heads that nod to an African heritage. His influence also resides in people like Lional Freeman, who was one of the neighborhood kids who helped Mizenburg clean the lots that became the museum. In this interview, Freeman and I talked about why the Sandbox Symphony came about and how this year the event included a Milton Mizenburg gallery on the beach. In the following interview edited for brevity, we talk about how events like Sandbox Symphony IV respond to gentrification, community building, and eco-consciousness, but we also discussed the impact of teaching artists, sampling and creating music around speeches, spontaneous composition, and Wu-Tang Clan. 

Tara Betts: I’m Tara Betts—journalist, poet, professor, and author. Thankfully, I got to meet you when that was still a dream, and we were both in love with hip hop. I was writing about hip hop and you were making hip hop music. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Brother El: So, I’m Brother El, also known as Lional Freeman (that’s the government name), and I’m an electronic musician and composer, a spontaneous composer actually. A teaching artist, or sometimes, I like to reverse it. I’m an artist who teaches. I think the artistry is more important in my discipline because without me making good art, I really have nothing to give.

TB: I think young people, and people who want to learn about art, can learn so much just by seeing how a discipline is practiced. That is part of the pedagogy. 

BE: Yes. I try to set up situations where it’s there if you want it, and it’s there in an intense way. I was into hip hop—producing, deejaying, rapping, and I was in several groups, and we met at Loyola University, and we started a hip hop radio show called “The Hip Hop Project.” It’s crazy.

TB: It’s still on the air. 

BE: It’s amazing after all these years, and it’s still on the air. 

TB: Thanks to you. You really made that happen. I think we were lucky. We got to do the “Golden Era” when it was still the Golden Era of hip hop. I also think that there’s a lot of exciting things now in terms of how hip hop artists play with language, how they’re sampling different musical canons, which I think you do in a lot of your work with “spontaneous composition.” How do you define “spontaneous composition”? 

BE: Well, I liken the experience to a freestyle, you know, off the dome, but I just use electronic tools, and these tools are musical tools—keyboards, synthesizers, drum machines, sequencers, and I work with those tools in a manner that any musician would work with their instrument. Those things become a part of me and my way of expressing a feeling, a vibration, or just generally to feel good. 

TB: Right. One of the things that’s been compelling about your recent work with spontaneous composition is that you’ve been taking it into public spaces. A lot of us who were in activist communities in Chicago at a certain point were reading Augusto Boal where people did extemporaneous theater in the streets to provoke a response, and not just even hip hop cyphers, but different ways to get people to be drawn to something and be engaged by it. 

BE: Right. 

TB: I see that thread throughout, whether it’s the compositions that you did at the Smart Museum, or with the series that you just kicked off with the Chicago Park Districts, but also with Sandbox Symphony, so I’m curious how did you get started with Sandbox Symphony? I feel like that’s the earliest iteration I’ve seen of you doing the spontaneous composition. 

BE: As an artist in Chicago who makes electronic music, I find that it’s difficult to make a living. I find that the possibilities to engage with audiences are not equitable in many ways. For instance, there’s a lot of national acts being booked in Chicago, but when the Chicago acts are booked, they’re either asked to perform for free or some nominal fee that’s almost insulting. And those people who have the keys of sorts to those opportunities aren’t really on the pulse of the music, and they don’t know what’s going on, and they’re totally detached from any movements, but in some ways, they’ve assumed these positions and they become these gatekeepers. So I thought to rework how I thought about performance, how I solicit opportunities in general. I’m making music––they want to offer me this nominal amount to play. I got equipment. Why don’t I just play on my own? I know it’s sounds like a real, simple thing, but then I started to think about it, and I did it. 

Image: Brother El at the Smart Museum in front of Glenn Ligon's Stranger #68, 2012. Photo by Cecil McDonald.
Image: Brother El at the Smart Museum in front of Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #68, 2012. Photo by Cecil McDonald.

TB: Like what you did with The Present Elders?

BE: Yeah, we did a lot of that. I realized it was powerful that I was able to separate myself from the talent buyers and those that would give the opportunities. I was able to make my own opportunities and that spurred a lot of thought, thought about my discipline. I could take my career into my own hands. The opportunities that they give you where you open up for someone and they give you $100, really over time, in my opinion, doesn’t amount to very much at all. 

TB: $100. That’s like expenses to be there.

BE: Expensive, too. Right. I say, some artists are dying of exposure because they often say “hey, do this for exposure.” And you can die in the cold from exposure. In the Chi, that ain’t gonna work.

TB: If you think about what it means not just to avoid events when you’re underpaid or doing it for exposure––although that may be a good breeding ground for beginning artists who are just getting out there––but there’s a point where you have to say “I’m not getting where I want to go, what’s the best way to get there?” It’s not always the established route. Sometimes, it’s around the gatekeepers.

BE: It’s totally around the gatekeepers, and I realized that I liked being in the public more on my own terms than on their terms. Imagine being out on the street. People love you. People hate you, and if they like you, they really like you, and if they don’t like you, they may spit at you. It’s that real. The fact that when you are out there performing and you win an audience, they’re with you. It’s not like at a show where people come to see people.

TB: You have to move the crowd in a totally different way. 

BE: It’s challenged me to dig down deep within my artistry to really connect with people. That’s a segue to me doing other things, to focus on teaching artistry more intensely, working with Urban Gateways, CAPE (Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education), working with young people, and helping them think about things, helping them understand time to think is important. 

TB: Absolutely. 

BE: So, you can critically assess your life, or you can just come up with things. You need time to think, and I think that music is such a healing thing that allows you to do so many different things within it. It’s about space and time. It’s a medicine. It’s meditational. It’s also a physical thing.

TB: It’s like you’re immersed in an environment if a music has a certain rhythm, almost like incantation, trapped in its measures, but I want us to talk about Sandbox Symphony. How did that get started? 

BE: I had an opportunity to do a show as part of an initiative with the Old Town School of Folk Music called “77 Beats.” I was approached to do this show, and I’d be allowed to produce it in my neighborhood. They wanted to do 77 shows in 77 different neighborhoods. I was chosen because I was already working as a teaching artist with them. The first thing that came to mind was that I wanted to produce something on the beach. I felt it was an underutilized space. 

TB: It’s a beautiful space. 

BE: You think about this super natural feature. Lake Michigan. The shore. 

TB: What could be more Chicago than that? 

BE: Right off Lake Shore Drive, the skyline, the whole nine…I was like yeah, I want to do it on the beach. Around the same time, one of my mentors, Mr. Milton Mizenburg. He was a sculptor. He worked in wood and metal, and the interesting thing about Mr. Mizenburg was that he was a powerhouse for transforming space before people even understood what that meant. What he would do, he would clean up vacant lots and transform them into galleries with his art. Those same vacant lots had abandoned cars, tires, drug needles, and trash everywhere. Now, how I plug in with Mr. Mizenburg is I was one of the youth who helped clean those lots and fix some of those things because I’m really from the neighborhood that he was working in. 

TB: And you still live there. 

BE: And I still live in the neighborhood, and I’ve moved around the globe in some ways, and around that time, he passed away. So, I thought, What if I bring his art to the beach? The Sandbox Symphony started as a concert and a legacy celebration for him. So, I got some of his statues and then we affixed them on the beach. And we had this electronic music concert on the beach and people started saying “This was really cool. When are you doing it again? Are you doing it next year?” Then we fast forward to now, and this is Sandbox Symphony IV and this year, one thing that’s a little bit different: we’ve flirted around with putting a gallery on the beach in the past, but never in the manner that we’re preparing to do this time. We’re converting the beach into a gallery with all-sensory information around. 

TB: So, is it almost like you could walk through it on the beach? 

BE: Absolutely. I’m getting support from the Chicago Park Districts, a special department that collects some of the natural resources and they use those for some of their projects like playgrounds, and they like the idea of converting the beach into the gallery so they’re supporting me. I got the Field Museum who is interested in working with us in a different capacity, just based on the social equity of doing an event like this. Night Out in the Parks is helping to support this, and just a general team of people in the neighborhood and some students that I’ve worked with in the past, and I got a class that I’m working with at Dyett High School. We met about two weeks ago to make projects that we’ll be presenting at Sandbox Symphony that day as well. I’ll have young artists and established artists who will be featured on the beach. Some of the featured artists will include Rhonda Gray and others as special surprises. That’s kind of how the Sandbox Symphony came together as an opportunity to do a show and it turned into its own thing. I saw the opportunity to not just do a show with me, but why not showcase my community as well. This year we’ll open with a yoga warm-up. We’ll go into some music. We’ll have some sound healing. We have some coordinated art activities on the beach…

TB: Some sand castles…[laughter]

BE: That’s a given! I was even thinking of tossing up a sand castle building contest or something like that, but we always have our sand castle builder there. He makes very elaborate structures. 

TB: I remember that from the last time I went. 

BE: He’s very essential to the whole unit. We’ll have a market, a fresh fruit market, and food, even some vegan things. 

TB: On the South Side food access has gotten better. The one thing that’s coming up as you’re describing all this stuff, whether you’re talking about Milton Mizenburg or this collaboration using natural resources on the beach, people often think that Black people aren’t ecologically minded or that we’re not thinking about the environment, or that it’s “a white issue,” but Black people have always been thinking about nature. We were brought here to do agricultural work that no one wanted to do, so when you think of it that way, it’s like we’ve always been tied to nature. 

BE: There are whole groups dedicated to environmentalists of color. 

TB: Right. Even though this is an arts-centered event and it’s centered around electronic music and visual art and video in some ways, that’s an important thing to discuss. It’s not just saying we have creativity and that we have powerful communities on the South Side that need to be celebrated. It’s also saying that we care about this place where we live. 

BE: We really do. Well, I do. I also think that part of my wanting to continue this celebration of sorts to promote my art and others as well is as a response to gentrification in many ways. We are able to mark territory and say that there are cultural things that are essential to this community that must be maintained, and you need the right people to do it. I feel a responsibility to do such. 

TB: And there are so many things that are important with that, whether we’re thinking about ownership, buying the building as opposed to renting…What do we do to support our own economics? How do we build communities? This is one of the opportunities to think about how does an arts festival or an arts-centered event get bigger. 

BE: I really like the grassroots nature of this. I don’t want it to get too big. I just want it to be a great experience for everybody. I don’t want the beach to be saturated with people where you can’t walk through it. This is a family-friendly event. I want to keep it clean in the sense that you could bring your child here and not worry about anything, and adults could have fun too. I mean the beach is that feature. That’s the kind of event that I’m interested in for everyone. The way it’s designed it’s multi-layered. There’s sensory information from art, sound, food, there’s fitness… It’s a unique opportunity to do something that can empower others. Just thinking about that empowerment is about alternative thinking and ownership that you were talking about. Just reversing a mentality about certain things and how we engage with them, and we can engage with them in a way that stimulates forward movement for a goal. For some people, they may try yoga for the first time, and it’s a new thing to them. I may spark a child toward sculpture because they see people sculpting for the first time in sand. That may be the first time that they are engaged that way.  Of course, there’s the music. There’s always the music. 

TB: That’s the pulse running through everything. 

BE: I’ll put it like this. The youth love me. Adults, I don’t know. I do got adult people who roll with me tight, but the youth are open to new sounds. That’s one of the things that helps me as a teaching artist. I’m able to take that interest and guide it in a direction that allows them to discover other things. 

TB: Which is the best part of being a teaching artist. I find that people don’t just have misconceptions about young people in Chicago. There’s the criminalization of young people, but the criminalization of the South Side, right? When I think of the South Side, I think about Sandbox Symphony. I think of the Soulful Book Fair, the DuSable Museum African Arts Festival, the Silver Room Block Party, all these events that have been founded by Black people in the city of Chicago, people we know, and no one can say there’s even been a violent incident, and businesses and vendors cannot say that they didn’t make money that day. It’s not just a positive representation of what Black culture can do and be in this city. It’s also how can we create this space that we rely upon, instead of relying on somebody else to create a space where we can enjoy in the city that we live in. 

BE: I think that theme is present in all my work. It’s an essential to transform space, to transform thought, to approach things with a healing capacity, to enrich a person’s life, to enrich my own life, to stretch into that uncomfortable place where I’m able to grow, and we’re able to grow. I’m constantly in places where I’m uncomfortable in the sense that I gotta do a little bit of extra work to understand what’s going on. I gotta read a little bit more. I gotta stay a little bit later. I gotta practice a little bit longer. 

TB: Or just try some things you have not tried before, and be a little bit nervous about it, and just jump. 

BE: And then I’m there, and then I’ve arrived. I’m like that was hard, but I’m different. I’m a different person. 

TB: No one can teach you that. It’s like you embody Yoda, and you just DO. There is no “try.”

Image: Brother El with Milton Mizenburg at the Red Bull Art of Can Competition, 2014.
Image: Brother El with Milton Mizenburg at the Red Bull Art of Can Competition, 2014.

BE: And keeping intelligent people around me. I’ll say that again: KEEPING INTELLIGENT PEOPLE AROUND YOU. Because you know what, I’m talking about those people who won’t allow you to do something stupid. Someone who has a certain integrity, someone who is wise about things. Keep smarter people around you. Some things you can synthesize. If you’re around intelligent people that you can learn from, that sets you up to move forward as well. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by intellectuals and learn something from them. 

TB: From this process of putting together Sandbox Symphony, what have you learned? 

BE: That I need more help. I need more time. I need more money. There’s never enough for any of that.

TB: Is there a way that people can donate or volunteer? 

BE: All they have to do is visit my website TheBeatBank.net, and there’s a place on the website where they can contribute.

TB: If there’s one magical memory of something that happened at the Sandbox Symphony from the past three years, what’s your favorite memory? 

BE: One of my former mentees, who’s now a grown man, he may be a motivational speaker of sorts, he’s also a poet. He found me and got back with me. He came to the Sandbox Symphony and we reconnected, and he shared some of the experiences that shaped who he became as a man. I took him to see Wu-Tang.

TB: Did y’all go to the Congress Theater? You know that’s where they did almost every show here back in the day. 

BE: I took him and his best friend to their first concert because I was heavily into those things, and you know, being on the radio, I knew where everything was happening. So, that concert we reflected on and some of the things that we used to do at the radio show, and he thanked me for being a critical part of how he thinks about his artistry and his life. Now, what’s very interesting is our trajectories are very different. He does his own thing in a unique capacity. I will say that he has an alternate way of thinking about the world and how he engages with it, his taste for music, and what he expects from people, and how he gives of himself. I can see a lot of that. 

TB: That’s one of the best qualities that I’ve seen in teaching artists across the country. Do you create automatons who are little clones of you or do you create people who each have individual voices so that generation is like their own Wu-Tang Clan?

BE: Right.

TB: Because that’s the beauty of Wu-Tang. Everybody had a different voice, a different character, a different style, different flow. You can introduce them to the same things, and they can grow up in the same place, but can they all be unique in their voice and their expression? 

BE: I’m right with you. When I hear him speak and recite some of his poetry, it’s amazing. It’s like wow. I can’t take credit for that, but I’m glad that he thinks so highly of me for putting him in certain situations that allowed him to discover himself and his artistry.

TB: And to be able to do that through electronic music, which is not a medium that people always talk about. I hear people talk about EDM, but I don’t really think what you’re doing is EDM. That’s like pop club music.

BE: The whole vernacular, the terms, it’s all crazy. What is electronic music? It’s music made with electronic tools. So, that’s everything…

TB: It’s all what you put into it. 

BE: Now, me, on the other hand, I approach it from a hip hop aesthetic. Everything I do is from a hip hop aesthetic. Culturally, I think ideas…I implement almost as if I’m sampling a record, but I don’t sample records. 

TB: Or if you do sample, you pick interesting things. I can’t recall what the piece was that you sampled during your “Sonic Abstractions” series at the Smart Museum but that was cool. 

BE: So that was a recording of an actual person. I can tell you exactly who it was. It was a pastor at my aunt’s church named Doris Sellers. 

TB: It was super powerful, and it fit with the piece. It resonated with the music. I would say the same thing about “A Message of Warning” from The Enemy Wants Us Dead, one of your songs on Tidal. 

BE: That’s Minister Farrakhan. 

TB: Yes, I’ve written to that piece because his cadences are so unique––well, I won’t say unique because I feel he borrows a lot from Malcolm X. His cadences are so rhythmic, and it falls into the music so well that I just sit down and write. His voice almost becomes another instrument, another sound. 

BE: Voice is the first instrument. 

TB: Exactly, but I think some people think they’re just supposed to ride a beat vocally, and I’m like make sure there’s a message and sonic instrumentation. 

BE: I took a speech and made music around the speech. I was influenced by what he was saying and his rhythm. 

TB: I think some people don’t understand that you can weave it together and successfully make art from other art as a sort of ekphrastic thing. 

BE: And now together, it’s its own thing. 

TB: Is there anything else you want to share about Sandbox Symphony IV and other projects?

BE: Well, I’m working on various projects, but the main thing is I want people to enjoy themselves at Sandbox Symphony and just to be free, or use this as an opportunity for a staycation if you need it, or use it as an opportunity to explore some natural resources in your own community, and support some industry in your own neighborhood. You can Google Sandbox Symphony IV and @BrotherEl.

TB: Since we’ve been talking about speeches, is there a final quote that you’d like to end on? 

BE: Yes, I want to refer to a sermon that’s kind of like a poem, from one of the pastors at my aunt’s church. She goes to The Center of God and Christ on 55th and Indiana (The Life Center C.O.G.I.C.). The pastor is T.L. Barrett and one of the other pastors, my aunt’s friend, is Doris Sellers. She asked me to record it, and I did. I put it on CDs, and I think she passed it around as a gift. I sat on it for years, and I didn’t know what to do with it. Then, one day I pulled it out and I heard it again. I’m just going to take a little piece of that, and it just says: “Don’t let life happen to you. Participate. Either you prepare or you repair, so it is.” 

TB: “Prepare or repair, so it is.” That’s a good way to end it. Thank you. 

Featured Image: Brother El spinning at the Smart Museum in front of Charles Gaines’ Numbers and Trees, Central Park, Series I, Tree #9, 2016. Photo by Spencer Bibbs.


Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue as well as the chapbooks 7 x 7: kwansabas and THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali. Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello GigglesMosaic MagazineNYLONThe Source, and Poetry magazine. She is part of the MFA faculty at Chicago State University and Stonecoast – University of Southern Maine. When she’s not teaching, Tara works with dedicated teams at Another Chicago Magazine and The Langston Hughes Review as Poetry Editor. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.